Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Hub Theatre Failure: A Love Story

By • Apr 29th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Failure: A Love Story
Hub Theatre: (Info) (Web)
John Swazye Theatre, Fairfax, VA
Through May 18th
1:40 without intermission
$30/$20 Seniors, students (Plus Fees)
Reviewed April 25th, 2014
Note: For ages 10 and up.

Hub Theatre’s production of Failure: A Love Story by Philip Dawkins continues the Hub’s winning tradition of producing shows that are singular, artistically fanciful, and acted with heart and intelligence. In this case, it is “a play with a lot of death, that so wholly celebrates life (and that’s not a spoiler, it is the very reason for the story)” as Hub Artistic Director Helen Pafumi wrote in her program notes.

Failure: A Love Story is a mischievous 90-minute, one-act about love, family, and melancholy all underpinned with live and recorded tunes of the 1920’s. It is far from gloomy, constructed as it is with brightly animated visual features and fast-talking characters to go along with its ultimately life-affirming message. Failure: A Love Story received its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago in 2012. Dawkins teaches playwriting at Northwestern University.

One way to describe the overall production is to think of it as an episode of public radio’s “This American Life” with its first person narrative. In the case of Failure: A Love Story, the narrative is “I don’t know why anything happens the way it does” as one of the characters states. The play generally takes place in the 1920’s in Chicago, near the Chicago River. It is a ultimately a memory play of the young man who unexpectedly finds his way under the three Fail sisters’ spell of warm domesticity.

The Fail family lives in a wobbly world in which the unexpected regularly happens. It is a world where a character will say “never saw it coming” and the audience nods in silent agreement, knowing that untimely death from various means is what the play is about. Well, so it is on its surface.

Under director Matt Bassett’s guidance, the actors can be highly stylized in presentation, often enough presenting their dialogue through a snappy manner. The actors speak not only with their voices but with vigorous facial, and especially eye, expressions, that add emphasis to the dialogue. They often act as live props using physicality to provide fascinating sound effects for added pop. The ensemble often find themselves as inanimate objects like clocks and appliances, as well as playful presentations of family pets including a snake, a dog and a couple of chipper, chirping parakeets.

The ensemble gives each character a colorful, clear personality and easy-to-read manners. The cast includes Michael Kevin Darnall as the charismatic, wide-eyed Mortimer Mortimer, the man who unexpectedly finds his way into the Fail family clock shop. Over the course of the play, Darnal becomes the fixed, standing, May pole that others dance around. Yet he is a befuddled soul trying to understand what is before him. He may know business and be a success, but the women in the Fail family are another matter.

The three sisters are Gerty, the eldest Fail sister, played by Carolyn Kasner. She is the business-oriented of the trio. Kasner gives off a steadfast protective quality moving and speaking with a deliberate pace. Jenny June is the tom-boyish, boundary-pushing middle Fail sister. The role is played with great charm and open-armed whimsy by Tia Shearer. Maggie Erwin is Nellie, the youngest Fail sister. Erwin is ever buoyant, highly- spirited with a effervescent smile that says “I want to experience life, right now!”

Chris Stinson is the reclusive, but weirdly-likeable brother John N. Fail. Stinson performs with a droll manner. His dialogue delivery may remind you of David Sedaris when he tells radio stories. His physical mannerism remind may remind you of earl Christopher Walken. Rose McConnell is the Gramaphone; a vital, delightful role in the hands of the right actor. McConnell is just that; she is a whoop in the way she presents herself as clocks, animals and as the live pianists. She doesn’t take away from those in the foreground of the play, but your eyes will track on her expressive movements and abilities to make percussive rhythms.

Betsy Muller’s scenic design imaginatively uses the theater’s diminutive stage space ably. There are small trunks, several tables and an upright piano that provide what the imagination needs to fill in detailed scenery. The Chicago River is well-represented by a movable painted three-panel display.

The play includes a spiffy sound design with some musical compositions by Patrick Calhoun. Preshow music includes Billie Holliday’s “In My Solitude,” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” During the production itself there is a score of eight songs that enhance the script’s word play. One song, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” is played several times moving through arrangements including a jaunty version to one that is in a minor, sorrowful key. Critical and live clock-like sound effects are made by the actors using their voices, wooden mallets and an assortment of whistles and toys. These sounds become percussive rhythm to illuminate the sense of time moving ever forward.

Maria Vetsch’s costumes must have been a joy to find in the local consignment shops and borrowings. The outfits include a flowery drop-waist dress, a practical woman’s two-piece swim suit, topped with a delightful pink swim cap, and a no-nonsense woman’s suit with ever so sensible shoes.

There are a number of items that could use the playwright’s tightening. First, the play wraps up rather quickly. Then something akin to an afterword to the main action is tacked on to further explain things from the long-lived Mortimer Mortimer’s critical perspective. The early part of the script takes its time creating a back story for the Fail Family that doesn’t add much juice to the production’s energy. Nelly, the first sister’s death, takes a bit of time to appear. Jenny June, the second sister to pass away, takes a shorter amount of time, while Gerty’s passing happens in a flash. It is a trajectory like snow moving downhill into an avalanche picking up speed along the way.

When attending a Hub production, a DC-area audience can reliably know it will witness a smart, literate production of a rarely known playwright or play. As Hub Artistic Director Pafumi told your reviewer, “I adore plays that leave you with a pang of joy and pain, that are bittersweet to the core.”

Failure: A Love Story is ultimately a reflective, stylish production on the randomness of life and death. “I don’t know why anything happens the way it does” is how one characters puts it. But, it is a reflection not of despair or failure but of life as “a big success” using John N’s view of the happenings.

As the play reaches its conclusion, Mortimer Mortimer asks himself and us, “How do you go on?” when something bad happens. Do you just wish to hide under the covers or try to go back in time to relog to make a different stop point? Then there is the Fail family approach of acceptance of what “is.” Tell everyone you ever loved this: “Tell them I’m on my way.”

Photo Gallery

Michael Kevin Darnall, Tia Shearer and Carolyn Kashner Maggie Erwin
Michael Kevin Darnall, Tia Shearer and Carolyn Kashner
Maggie Erwin
Maggie Erwin, Tia Shearer, and Chris Stinson Michael Kevin Darnall, Tia Shearer
Maggie Erwin, Tia Shearer, and Chris Stinson
Michael Kevin Darnall, Tia Shearer
Tia Shearer and Maggie Erwin Carolyn Kashner, Tia Shearer, Michael Kevin Darnall, and Maggie Erwin
Tia Shearer and Maggie Erwin
Carolyn Kashner, Tia Shearer, Michael Kevin Darnall, and Maggie Erwin

Photos by C. Stanley Photography


  • Mortimer: Michael Kevin Darnall
  • Gerty: Carolyn Kasner
  • Jenny June: Tia Shearer
  • Nelly: Maggie Erwin
  • John N.: Chris Stinson
  • Gramaphone: Rose McConnell

Artistic and Design Team

  • Director: Matt Bassett
  • Scenic Designer: Betsy Muller
  • Lighting Designer: Catherine Girardi
  • Sound Design and Composition: Patrick Calhoun
  • Costume Design: Maria Vetsch
  • Props Design: Suzanne Maloney
  • Stage Manager: Keta Newborn
  • Technical Designer: Christian Sullivan

Disclaimer: Hub Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

One Response »

  1. The female character costumes were neither bought nor borrowed, but designed and crafted by me.